With over 2000 pagodas in Bagan, it is an impossible task deciding which ones to visit without some help – but that’s where we come in. Using a combination of travel guides, locals’ advice, our hotel in Bagan’s recommendations and our own experience we have put together this guide of the best Bagan pagodas that you need to visit.
Better yet, we have created a map of Bagan temples so you can find them easily. It’s essential to plan which pagodas in Bagan you want to visit to avoid wandering aimlessly in the heat or missing out in some epic photo opportunities.
The Bagan archaeological zone is under 20 square miles but is the highest concentration of pagodas in the world, earning its UNESCO World Heritage Status. Between the 11th Centuries in Bagan, an astonishing 10,000 pagodas were constructed. Fast forward to present today, more than 2000 remain many of which contain frescoes, monuments, religious relics and statues of Buddha.
Each of the Bagan pagodas are unique in their own way with some so perfectly restored it’s hard to believe they are thousands of years old. The historical and cultural significance of these incredible buildings will leave you mesmerised, not to mention the unmissable photo opportunities and insight into local culture that each one offers.
Although we only had 3 days in Bagan, we managed to squeeze in as many as possible and have shared below our top 15 Bagan pagodas so you can witness these epic sites for yourself.
BAGAN TEMPLE MAP
With so many pagodas in such a small area there are not exactly addresses for each one, to be honest there’s not even streets so instead we created this Bagan temple map where all the sites mentioned below are marked. Simply click on each temple icon and the location, reviews and photos will pop up for each of the pagodas in Bagan that we went to.
THE BAGAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL FEE
The majority of Bagan pagodas are within what’s known as the “Bagan Archaeological Zone” and in order to access entry, tourists are requested to pay the “Bagan Archaeological Zone Fee” which was 25,000 MMK (approx. £13) during our visit in April 2019.
This fee is for the upkeep and restoration of these incredible buildings and is a small price to pay for the unforgettable experience you will have during your time in Bagan so please do not try and sneak past the ticket desk. We understand if you are backpacking Myanmar you may be on a budget, but this pass not only gives access to these epic buildings, it also lasts for 5 days so is amazing value for money.
Unfortunately, we have read several travel blogs offering hacks on how to avoid paying the fee but hope our readers are respectful and understand how important being a responsible traveller is to local communities.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PAGODA AND A TEMPLE?
BEST WAY TO TOUR THE PAGODAS IN BAGAN
Touring the Bagan Pagodas by Bike
In Bagan, it is actually illegal for tourists to hire mopeds. This means that you can only hire E-bikes or bicycles. Using the temples in Bagan map above, it is relatively easy to cycle from one temple to the next as most are just minutes apart. If you would prefer a local explain the history of each pagoda and a more detailed visit, then an organised bike tour is perfect for you. It also means you avoid getting lost in the 40+ degree heat!
- Cycling Tour: This 5 star, full day bike tour with a local guide covers the most famous Bagan pagodas and even includes refreshments along the way! More details here.
- E-Bike Tour: This full day tour also includes a local guide and covers the most famous temples in Bagan, but is instead on E-bikes. The tour also includes lunch in a local restaurant. More details here.
Touring the Bagan Pagodas on Foot
As mentioned, with the temples in Bagan so close together it is possible to visit them on foot. We did this on day 2 of our Bagan itinerary but we did struggle with the heat and didn’t manage to see as many as we wanted within the day. If you plan on walking round Old Bagan then definitely leave as early in the day as possible to avoid the midday sun.
We then paid around 4000MMK (approx. £4.50) for a Tuk Tuk to take us from Old Bagan back to our accommodation – to be honest, this was a little overpriced considering all day with a private driver was £18 but we were grateful to escape the heat!
Private Tour of Bagan Pagodas
On day 3 of our Bagan itinerary, we realised there was still so much we wanted to squeeze in, but wouldn’t have enough time unless we travelled by car. We also couldn’t take much more of the 40+ degree heat so an air-conditioned car seemed the best option! The driver we used was actually the taxi driver who picked us up from the bus station and he gave us his card, explaining he also does private tours of the Bagan pagodas.
For a private car/driver for the day, it cost 35000 MMK (approx. £18) and as well as taking us to the final Bagan pagodas on our list he also took us to a lacquer Workshop, Mani Sithu Market and a local tea shop. You can read about our experience here.
15 MUST VISIT BAGAN PAGODAS
1. Shwezigon Pagoda
We start our list with one of the most famous Bagan pagodas and actually the first one we visited during our 3 days in Bagan. To be honest, the sheer size and golden splendour of Shwezigon Pagoda really set the standard for the duration of our trip, surely they cannot get better than this? *Spoiler alert* they do.
Located about 5 km North East of Old Bagan, Shwezigon Pagoda is located nearby the village of Nyaung U, not far from the Irrawaddy river (and also not far from a great restaurant called Sharky’s.) Unlike other pagodas in Bagan, Shwezigon is more of a “complex” with several stupas and buildings contained within the terrace walls.
There are 4 entrances, however we took the sheltered walkway (East entrance) which was crowded with vendors selling jewellery and souvenirs. Market stalls outside the pagodas in Bagan are not uncommon, but we found the ladies here particularly pushy with one even taking Darren’s shoes and hiding them at her stall knowing he’d return and be forced to look at her wares.
Like all religious sites you will have to remove your shoes (and hope they don’t get pinched by a market stall owner) but we visited Shwezigon late afternoon and found the ground incredibly hot so literally had to hop from one sheltered spot to the next. Toasty toes aside, it was an incredible experience and hard to grasp that it was built in 1090, making it one of the oldest temples in Bagan.
Shwezigon Pagoda was also where we purchased our Bagan Archaeological pass, so it’s the perfect place to start!
2. Gawdawpalin Temple
Built in the early 13th century, Gawdawpalin towers over Bagan at 55metres high. It is the second tallest temple in Bagan but was severely damaged in the 1975 earthquake. Thankfully, it has been exquisitely restored (thanks to the Bagan archaeological zone fees) and a visit here will not disappoint.
It was built around the same time as the Sulamani temple and based on the architecture of the Thatbyinnyu temple which both feature later on our Bagan Pagoda list.
Again, there are four entrances with the East being the main entrance and is easy to spot due to it sticking out more, breaking the symmetry of this incredible building.
3. Maha Bodhi Phaya
Unlike any other of the Bagan pagodas, Maha Bodhi Phaya was built as an almost identical replica to the Indian temple of the same name. You will notice the Indian influence immediately thanks to the large pyramidal tower which is a characteristic of the Gupta period. This is the only pagoda of its kind in Bagan so definitely worth a visit.
Again, the temple was badly damaged in the 1975 earthquake, but thanks to restoration works, it’s hard to tell this temple was built in 1215. As well as the towering exterior, the interior is home to more than 450 Buddha images within alcoves that can be found surrounding the tower and also on the walls below the base.
4. Shwegu Gyi Phaya
The Schwegu Gyi translates to the “Golden Cave” but due to its location in front of the ancient royal palace, it is sometimes known as “Nandaw Oo Phaya” which translates to Pagoda in front of the palace.”
Through the intricate gates and the temple’s famous arched windows you can see one of the most famous Bagan pagodas – Thatbyinnyu, which is only a 10 minute walk away.
Schwegu Gyi has a fascinating history. It was built by King Alaungsithu in 1140 and sits on a huge 13ft platform. According to legend, this brick platform sprouted from the ground in response to King Alaungsithu’s power and greatness, so this brick formed the plinth of the temple. There are stone slabs in the temple with Pali inscriptions, explaining that it took just 7 months and 7 days to build Schwegu Gyi.
However, In 1167, King Alaungsithu became ill and his son Narathu, could not wait for him to die in order for him to become king so moved him into Shwegugyi Pagoda. When the king regained consciousness, he was furious that his son had moved him out of the palace. It is believed in a fit of rage, Narathu used the king’s bedding to smother his father.
Alaungsithu was a devout king, who during his prosperous reign built thousands of pagodas in Bagan, therefor following his untimely death, was inducted into the pantheon of the Burmese Animist nats, as Min Sithu. The nats are spirits who are worshipped in Bagan. There are 37 Great Nats in total all of which were devout Buddhists but died under violent circumstances.
If time allows, we recommend a day trip from Bagan to Mount Popa, to visit the fascinating monastery (guarded by monkeys) which is home to the Great Nats.
5. Mahazedi Pagoda
On route to Thatbyinnyu, we recommend stopping half way (around 5 minutes from Schwegu Gyi) at Mahazedi Pagoda. You cannot enter Mahazedi and as of 2018 you cannot climb it either, but it is an impressive photo opportunity none the less.
Maha Zedi is a Buddhist stupa built in 13th century. It remains one of the few temples in Bagan that still contains a full set of glazed terracotta tiles depicting the Jātaka tales. The Jātaka tales are a body of literature (native to India) which depict the life of Buddha – both in human and animal form.
In total there are 547 tiles and it was customary that the larger Bagan pagodas displays them in order to educate the public on Buddhism. Many of the Bagan pagodas still contain Jataka tiles, some just a handful and some are badly damaged however at Mahazedi they are perfectly intact.
6. Thatbyinnyi Pagoda
Although Thatbyinnyu is one of the most famous Bagan pagodas, we’re going to let you in on a little secret. A local stopped us during our visit and explained just before entering there is a smaller pagoda which contains a stone Buddha.
This pagoda is completely unassuming from the outside (not to mention completely overshadowed by Thatbyinnyu) but right enough, there was a unique monument inside.
We nearly walked passed this pagoda’s cave-like structure in disbelief that anything would be inside because it was so dark but we were grateful for this little tip as the stone buddha was unlike any other we’d seen so far in the temples in Bagan.
After the little detour, moving on to Thatbyinnyu. Also built during the reign of Kind Alaungsithu in 1144, Thatbyinnyu Temple is one of the highest temples in Bagan at 60 metres but also one of the oldest. As mentioned, you can witness this towering structure from many of the nearby pagodas in Bagan.
On the outside of Thatbyinnyu there are indentations from more than 500 Jātaka plaques, yet the plaques themselves are missing. The interior is just as impressive as the towering exterior, with many golden Buddha images, corridors, alcoves and statues of the earlier mentioned great Nats.
Near the Thatbyinnyu is a small temple, known as the tally pagoda. According to legend, for every 10,000 bricks used in the construction of Thatbyinnyu, one was put aside for the “tally pagoda” – forming this mini replica of Thatbinnyu.
Also next to Thatbyinnyu are two stone supports, which are believed to have held an enormous bronze bell donated which was donated by King Alaungsithu – the temple’s builder. Talking of enormous bells, the second largest bell in the world is actually in Mingun, Myanmar and worth including in your Myanmar itinerary.
From the outside, Minochantha is very unassuming and to be honest rarely features on the map of Bagan temples as a “must-see” attraction. However, it is a hidden gem and the perfect spot to witness the famous Bagan sunrise or sunset.
This is because the temple itself is a raised platform, home to an ornate wooden shrine and a few smaller stupas. All of which are guarded by Chinthe – the half lion, half dragon who frequents temples in Bagan due to his presence in Hindu-Buddhist mythology.
Once on top of the platform you will be rewarded with clear views of the nearby Thatbyinnyu as well as the extensive plains of Bagan. Apparently from this viewpoint you can see over 50 Bagan pagodas and monuments.
You may also be “rewarded” by several youngsters hounding you to buy postcards, which cut our visit quite short as we became increasingly frustrated with them following us as we tried to enjoy the view.
8. Ananda Temple, Bagan
Ananda Temple was one of our favourite temples in Bagan and to be honest, we really don’t want to share too much and spoil it for you – simply be prepared to be blown away.
Like all temples in Bagan, the Ananda Temple is surrounded by a rich history and it is believed it was created after 8 monks visited Bagan from India in the late 11th century. These monks told the King about a legendary temple in the Himalayas whilst creating a vision so impressive, the King decided to replicate this temple in Bagan. After completion of this temple (The Ananda) he had the architects executed to ensure nothing this great could ever be built again.
What fascinated us even more than the history was the insanely detailed restoration works of the Ananda temple. There are information boards at the entrance which show before and after imagery of these works which will leave you mindblown. It really promotes how valuable the Bagan Archaeological zone pass is and showcases the efforts of restoring these incredible buildings.
Thanks to the restoration, it is unimaginable that Ananda was one of the first temples in Bagan, built around 1090. The temple’s most distinctive feature is the gilded sikhara which is a tower like spire on top of the pagoda. This glittering gold sikhara can be seen for miles and in the evening, Ananda temple is even more unmissable thanks to the spotlights which illuminate it in all its splendour.
9. Sulamani Phaya
Built in 1183, Sulamani Phaya means “Crowning Jewel” or “Small Ruby.” An inscribed stone in the North of the temple, shares the history of its name, explaining King Narapatisithu apparently found a small ruby where the Sulamani temple is now located.
It is an elegant, rusty-red structure with one of the most stunning entrances of all Bagan pagodas. Starting with a beautiful archway that frames the long walkway to the temple. At Sulamanhi terraces, the terracotta plaques depicting the Jataka tales are still intact.
The Sulamani was originally more than just a temple, it was more of a complex which contained numerous buildings such as a lecture and ordination hall as well as a library.
10. Bulethi Temple
On your way to Sulamani temple it is likely you will pass Bulethi (occasionally spelled ‘Buledi’) which you are unable to enter, but is a grand structure worthy of a quick stop.
During our visit we met a group of local boys who excitedly took photos with us and as we were leaving we witnessed them climb Bulethi. It used to be a popular sunset spot, but is blocked by fencing and signage so although you may see locals climb it, please be a responsible traveller and do not join them. The crumbling brickwork is incredibly unsafe, not to mention the erosion climbing causes.
11. Dhammayangyi Temple
Like nearly all temples in Bagan there are numerous vendors outside Dhammayangyi selling jewellery, art and souvenirs. One began chatting to us and ended up being our tour guide for the duration of our time at Dhammayangyi temple.
Following the gruesome history of Schwegu Gyi pagoda we shared earlier, (where the King was murdered by his son) Dhammayangyi temple was built by the son, King Narathu as a gesture of remorse, to atone for his sins.
Despite being the largest and arguably grandest of all Bagan pagodas, our guide explained that locals nickname the temple “the unlucky temple” due to the reasons for its creation. Not only did King Narathu murder his father, but also his brother and wife (an Indian princess.) There is a monument devoted to his wife within the temple.
He also pointed out the mortar-less brickwork and explained if the bricks didn’t fit tightly enough that a pin could pass between the bricks then King Narathu would chop of the hands of the worker. You can still see these arm-sized grooves where this gruesome task was carried out inside the temple!
The guide also brought us to two windows which from the inside were at floor level, he asked us to sit as he went outside with our camera. From the outside they look incredibly high providing an impressive photo opportunity without the destructive need to climb on the pagoda.
After our visit, we offered to buy one of his paintings as a thank you for his insightful knowledge but to our surprise the student explained he enjoys giving tours as a way of practising English and didn’t do it for money, heightening our gratitude to the kind Burmese people.
12. Shwesandaw Pagoda
Shwesandaw Pagoda was built in 1057 and is nearby Dhammayangyi. It is one of the tallest Bagan pagodas at 328 feet high. The bell shaped stupa is topped with a golden hti with the signature ceremonial umbrella that can be found on many pagodas in Bagan. Also, like many Bagan pagodas parts of Shwesandaw have been restored after the 1975 earthquake so the umbrella on display is not the original. The original one is on display next to the pagoda.
Unlike the other red brick pagodas in Bagan, the Shwesandaw is painted white although not as striking white as the famous Hsinbyume Pagoda. It is set on a base of 5 square terraces, with each corner of the terraces originally having statues of Ganesha, the Hindu God. In Burmese Ganesha is known as Maha Peinne, so the Shwesandaw Pagoda is also known locally as Maha Peinne pagoda.
Again, it used to be one of the most popular Bagan pagodas for sunset but you can no longer climb Shwesandaw so please do not ignore the signs.
13. Shinbinthalyuang Temple
As a tip, mere metres from Shwesandaw you cannot miss Shinbinthalyuang temple. Few tourists know about it but the long, rectangular building with small windows actually contains a reclining Buddha image which is a staggering 70 ft long!
Created from brick and plaster, it is believed the image dates back to the 11th century but remains in incredible condition as do the numerous ancient murals which cover the walls. It really has to be seen to be believed.
14. Gu Byuak Gyi Myin Kabar
Again, we have never seen Gu Byauk Gyi Myin Kabar on a map of Bagan temples, it is a hidden gem which our local guide took us to. Built in 1113, it is located in Myinkaba Village and is unmissable for two reasons. The first is due to the interior which is adorned in the oldest, original paintings found in Bagan.
These paintings are so precious, no photography is allowed inside nor any bright lighting. Instead you are guided round the temple by a guide who has an electric torch on a long cable which illuminates the famous frescoes without causing damage.
The second reason you must add Gu Byauk Gyi Myin Kabar to your Bagan pagoda list is because the temple is located nearby Myazedi pagoda. This is home to two stone pillars with inscriptions written in four languages – Pali, Old Mon, Old Burmese and Pyu.
These ancient Southeast Asian languages are displayed on the pillars by Myazedi pagoda and are often referred to as the Burmese Rosetta Stone due to their historical and linguistic significance which helped decipher the Pyu language.
15. Manuha Temple
We are ending our temples in Bagan guide with the last temple we visited during our Bagan trip. If you were impressed by the reclining Buddha in Shinbinthalyaung Temple (which was 70ft long) you will be amazed by what can be found at Manuha temple. Built in 1067, not only is Manuha temple home to 3 large Buddha images but one enormous (90ft) reclining Buddha.
At the entrance a giant alms bowl can be found – so tall there is a ladder leading up to it. As we were visiting just days before Thingyan festival, there were many locals donating offerings of rice, flowers and money. Alongside the large alms bowl you will also notice very colourful images of the three most respected Nats – Mai Wunna and her two sons, who live on Mount Popa that we mentioned earlier.
Once inside, you will wonder why the rooms surrounding the Buddha statues are so small. This is because the Buddhas (one of which is 46ft, the other two are 33 ft high) were built first by King Manuha – hence the temple’s name. Then the temple was built around them. King Manuha spent a large proportion of his life in captivity, therefore built the small rooms to represent his frustrations of being held captive.
We hope this guide has offered a detailed insight into the Bagan pagodas without giving too much away before your visit. We found the history behind these stunning structures just as fascinating as exploring the buildings themselves and hope you leave plenty time (and camera memory) in your Bagan itinerary to see as many of the temples in Bagan as possible.